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Learn how to register voters and conduct Get Out the Vote campaigns, to build resident involvement, and strengthen your organization and the democratic process.

 

  • Why should you register voters?

  • Who can register voters?

  • How to register voters

  • How to convince people to register to vote

  • Following up: Convincing registered voters to go to the polls

  • Appendix: What a 501(c)(3) can and can't do

Our government was founded on democratic principles; on the idea that everyone has an equal voice, through their votes, in the direction our society takes. Over the years, that right has become more truly universal. African Americans were given the right to vote in 1870 with the passage of the 15th Amendment; women were given the right to vote with the passage of the 19th Amendment in 1920. In 1965, the Voting Rights Act was enacted to overturn decades of racial discrimination; and in 1971, the 26th Amendment gave 18 year olds the right to vote. Additionally, poll taxes, restrictions on property ownership, and other barriers to voting have all melted away over the years. In 1995, the passage of the "Motor Voter" bill made it easier than ever for people to register to vote.
 
Ironically, although voting has been made possible for more and more people, fewer and fewer Americans are actually exercising that right. In 1994, less than 40% of the voting-age population in the United States actually voted in any election. Compare that figure with democracies in Europe, which consistently have voter turnout rates of 70, 80, or even 90%. As Americans we like to pride ourselves on being part of the world's leading democracy, but that claim becomes a bit hollow in the face of these statistics.
 
It's easy to forget, with the general level of voter apathy that exists, the importance of voting, and how powerful even a single vote can be. But our votes can and do change our history. They have consequences we may not have ever imagined. And as long as many people who could vote don't, many possibilities will remain unrealized.

Why should you register voters?

Specifically, registering voters can be an excellent undertaking for your organization because:
  • It helps to build a strong democracy.
  • It influences politicians' decisions, and thus it increases your organization's power to influence policies. When our elected officials know they are being watched, and that a large percentage of a certain group (such as women, Native Americans, or business people) is registered and planning to vote, that has a very strong impact on the decisions they make. For example, if your organization is interested in improving the rights of migrant farm workers, your position with state legislators will be much stronger if many or the majority of the farm workers in your area are registered and poised to vote in the upcoming election.
  • It increases the involvement of the group you work with in politics, thus giving them a stronger voice in government. This is very similar to the last point. But registering voters in a community will strengthen its members from that moment on. Even if your organization should disappear, the community will still have increased power and a stronger say in the decisions that affect its members.
  • It helps people who have traditionally avoided participation in the government understand how they can really have an impact on systems and processes that they have always seen as being outside of their lives. And because of this...
  • Registering to vote and exercising that right can be both educational and self -esteem-building for people who have felt powerless for a very long time.

Who can register voters?

Rules regarding voter registration vary from state to state. Some (but not all) states, for example, require people who register voters to be deputized. Also, many rules have changed substantially since the "Motor Voter" bill was passed in 1995 (we'll talk about the bill itself in just a minute). To find out the regulations for your area, check with your Election Commissioner or County Clerk.
What it's like in one state: For example, in Massachusetts, each city or town has a Board of Registrars. In small towns at least, this Board usually includes the Town Clerk. All referenda, other legal petitions, nomination papers for office, etc., have to be authorized by the Board. That is, the Board has to certify that the signatures are those of actual registered voters, question any that may not be, and sign the papers to make them legal.
 
Until fairly recently, only Registrars (or, in larger cities, their designees, whatever bureaucrats inhabited the appropriate office) and the Town Clerk could register voters. Voters had to supply some proof of residence, and, as they do still, declare themselves Democratic, Republican, or Undeclared as to party affiliation. Now, with "Motor Voter" and other laws designed to make registering easier, you can just mail a post card to the Town Clerk or appropriate office and become a registered voter.
No matter where you live, however, there is always a lot your group can do to help register voters. You can encourage people to register, help them to obtain and fill out the forms, and participate in get-out-the-vote campaigns. Many nonprofit organizations also register voters as a matter of course. They might, for example, promote voting as a part of their activities.
 
For example, in a class teaching English as a Second Language (ESL), the teacher might assign an article on the importance of voting for students to read as homework. Then, the class might have a discussion about voting in the United States as compared to their countries of origin, or about the advantages of voting once you become a citizen. The class might even take a field trip to the Town Clerk's office to learn more about the process.
 
Many nonprofit groups choose to register voters because they believe in the process, or feel it is something their organization should be doing. However, since the "Motor Voter" bill went into effect in 1995, many social service agencies are also required to offer nonpartisan voter registration to people who come in as a matter of course.
 
Where to Register: Understanding the "Motor Voter" Law
In 1991, the National Voter Registration Reform Act was introduced in the U.S. Senate. This bill, which is commonly known as the "Motor Voter" bill, was designed to make it easier for people to register to vote. It was passed in 1993, and was fully implemented in 1995. The bill states that driver's license offices and other public assistance agencies must offer voter registration as a regular part of their services. It also creates a standardized mail-in registration form and requires states to allow registration by mail. According to law, certain places are required to offer nonpartisan registration. These places include:
  • Motor Vehicle Bureaus
  • All public assistance offices
  • Offices that provide state-funded programs primarily for persons with disabilities
  • Military recruiting offices
  • Any agency that provides services to disabled persons in their homes must also provide voter registration services in those homes
Each state may also decide to designate other agencies and offices to offer voter registration. These places include:
  • Public libraries
  • Public schools
  • Government revenue offices
  • City or county clerk's offices
  • Unemployment compensation offices
  • Federal and nongovernmental offices (with their agreement)
At agencies where voter registration is required by the new law, staff or volunteers must provide the following services:
  • Distribute voter registration application forms when they distribute their own forms. In public assistance offices, the form also must state that the applicant 's decision will not affect the amount of assistance provided.
  • Offer help in filling out the forms
  • Accept completed forms from clients, and take or send the completed forms to the elections office
  • The agency must offer its clients the mail voter registration form (or a combined form for the agency's services and voter registration) with each service provided.
Finally, people who provide voter registration services at these agencies:
  • Can't display a political or party affiliation
  • May not try to influence an applicant's choice of party affiliation, discourage an applicant from registering, or make any statement that registration will affect their ability to receive other services or benefits

How to register voters

If your organization has decided to register voters, it will probably be able to do so easily. Usually, doing so can be merged seamlessly with other activities your group does as a matter of course.
 
Example: The Literacy Project in Greenfield, MA simply registered students when they signed up. Staff and volunteers discussed students' objections and insecurities with them, helped them fill out the registration post card, and students became voters. And, almost universally, once they were registered they did vote, and became excited about elections and referendum questions. It became an ongoing part of the program.
 
The experience was often used as a learning tool. A group of students would go to the Town Clerk's office to register, and get the spiel about voting from the (well -prepped) Town Clerk, who was generally only too happy to be part of all this. Students would also find out what else went on at Town Hall and watch as their names were recorded as voters.
 
The process really made a difference for many of them, and changed their feelings about government, which to them had usually meant a welfare caseworker or someone trying to tell them why they couldn't have something they needed to survive. In order for this kind of thing to work, you obviously have to develop a relationship with the Town Clerk or others at Town Hall, and get them interested and involved in what you're doing.

In order to make registering voters a part of your organization's work, follow these steps:

  • Appoint someone to coordinate activities. If you are working from an agency, this person can develop the best method for routinely offering voter registration. For example, it might be offered in the intake process, at your reception desk, or during orientation sessions. This person should register clients -- but he or she can make sure that your own staff and volunteers are registered as well. He or she might also develop publicity for what you are doing.
  • Set voter registration goals. This will help you determine if your program has been a success. Some of the things you might want to set goals for include:
    • How many people you want to register.
    • Where you want them to be from. Do you want to focus on certain neighborhoods, or a certain part of town that traditionally has very few voters?
    • What special characteristics (living in a certain area, a certain ethnic group, etc.) you will try to focus on. For example, if your organization is working to help Latina women, your goals might be specifically increasing registration and voting among that population.
  • Do your research: Find out local registration rules. Registration rules vary from state to state. For example, how long before an election you need to register varies from state to state. Also, in some places you can register at 17 if you will be 18 for the election, but that's not always true. Finally, some states require voters to declare a party affiliation.
See Tools for a list of commonly asked questions you should be able to answer for your area. If you are unsure of the answers, the County Clerk's office or Election Commissioner in your town should be able to help.
  • Obtain forms for clients to fill out. Most states will accept the national form (available on the Internet from the Federal Election Commission's ); or you can contact your state or local elections office to receive registration forms or cards.
Using the National Forms
 
While state voter registration forms may be obtained locally, your organization can also use the national form. In most states (see below), the state and national form can be used interchangeably. If your organization is going to use the national form, here is some basic information about it:
  • An organization may mail completed Voter Registration Applications to the appropriate election office(s) individually or in a bundle. (If you register a lot of people, this can really help on postage.)
  • If you work with people for whom English is not their first language, it may be easier for them to fill out the form in their native tongue. The national form has been translated into: Spanish, Chinese, Japanese, Vietnamese, Tagalog (Filipino).
The translated forms are available as a matter of course in some areas, or you may receive them from the Federal Election Commission's Office of Election Administration.
  • The national form can be photocopied in some states. According to the Federal Election Commission, 23 states currently accept a photocopied voter registration application. They are: Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, California, Colorado, Connecticut, Hawaii, Iowa, Kansas, Louisiana, Michigan, Minnesota, Montana, Nebraska, New Jersey, New York, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, Texas, Utah, Washington, and Wisconsin.
States that don't accept photocopies will only take the National Mail Voter Registration application when it has been printed according to Federal Election Commission regulations.
  • While you can't register on line, you can download and print the form from the Federal Election Commission's website and use it to register to vote if your state accepts photocopied forms.
  • You can register to vote in almost any state (and also in the District of Columbia) using the national form. However, there are four exceptions:
    • North Dakota does not have voter registration.
    • Wyoming does not accept the national form.
    • Mississippi will only accept the form to register individuals for Federal elections.
    • New Hampshire town and city clerks will accept the national form only as a request for their own mail-in voter registration form
  • Publicize the fact that you are registering voters. There are many ways to do this, including:
    • Ask clients if they want to register today. You might ask when they first come in, make it part of your intake/outtake interview, or add it to your organization's forms.
    • Develop posters or flyers encouraging people to register, and hang them in your office or even throughout town.
    • Develop and use a phone bank to get the word out. In a phone bank, your organization gets a group of people together (often staff or volunteers) to call a large number of people (perhaps clients of your organization) to get certain information across. A phone bank has many different uses; it can also be used to poll voters on their preferences or to remind them to vote.
    • Send a mass email alert asking people to register. A caution, here: this will limit your potential audience to people with easy access to a computer. If you are especially interested in registering people without much money, or who are less likely to be on line, this may not be a particularly good option for you to use.
    • Go door-to-door (with registration cards) asking people to register. This can be very time intensive, but this option may be particularly useful if you want to concentrate your efforts in a certain neighborhood.
    • Give incentives to people who register. This might be especially useful for a voter registration drive. Small things such as pens, buttons, etc., can be very helpful in convincing people to take the time to do it.
    • Get the word out about voter registration in your organization's newsletter and also in the newsletters of groups or churches you partner with.
  • Be clear that your registration policies are nonpartisan. If your organization is a 501(c)(3) organization, there are certain regulations you will have to comply with. One of these is that you must be sure that a sign is posted or written notice is permanently displayed that states: "Our voter registration services are available without regard to the voter's political preference."
  • Extend help. Offer to assist people in completing their registration forms, making sure the form is completed correctly, and getting it in the mail (or taking the completed forms where they are going).
  • Record the names and phone numbers of people who register. There are two major advantages of doing this. First, you can contact people in a few weeks to make sure they have heard from the state election office, and follow up if they haven't. And second, this will help when it comes time for Get-Out-The-Vote efforts. You can contact the people who have registered to vote by phone or with a post card, for example, to remind them to go vote in the upcoming election and make sure they have transportation.
In Tools, you will find a blank form that can help you record registrants' names and phone numbers.
 
Holding a Voter Registration Drive
Most of this section is meant for organizations that want to make voter registration a part of their group's normal practices. However, there will be times when a group wants to run a drive to register the maximum number of people in a short period. For these campaigns, most of the steps above will still apply. Additionally, however, you will need to do the following:
  • Choose a day or days to hold the registration drive. Be sure to pick a date that meets the registration deadline for your area. This varies from state to state. Some states only require voters to register about 10 days before the election, but most require closer to 30.
  • Decide where and how to reach your audience. You might want to coordinate your drive with an event where you will be able to reach a large number of people from your target audience. For example, Rock the Vote, a nationwide campaign to encourage voting among young adults, did a lot of their registration work at huge rock concerts. A smaller example is a group working for better health care for Hispanics might conduct their registration drive at an annual fiesta. Arts festivals, sports events, and shopping malls are three other places you might use to conduct your drive.
  • Recruit volunteers to help with the drive, and make sure they have all of the information and understanding they need to be effective. You might have an orientation meeting with all of the volunteers, or contact them each by phone to review questions about the registration process and to confirm logistics. That is, be sure they are clear about when you need them, where, for how long, and what they will need to bring.
You might also give them a "cheat sheet" with answers to commonly asked questions about voter registration. (See Tool #1). Also, be sure people know what to do if they get questions they can't answer. For example, should they refer people to your office? Will someone be nearby who might be able to help them? Should they offer to find out and call the questioner with the answer?
 
To recruit volunteers, you might consider asking people who have recently registered. Oftentimes, the best convincers are people who have recently voted for the first time. They're still excited about it, and are very familiar with the excuses people give for not registering.
  • Remind volunteers that the effort is nonpartisan. Remember, if your organization is a designated voter registration agency under the "Motor Voter" bill or a 501(c)(3) charitable organization, volunteers may not advocate particular candidates or suggest how a person should vote. If you can swing it, it's a good idea to have volunteers from more than one political party taking part in the drive.

How to convince people to register to vote

It would be one thing if the only reason people didn't vote was because they hadn't had the opportunity to do so. Unfortunately, it's not always as easy as walking up to someone, saying, "Please register," and having them say, "Okay." People get frustrated with the process; they may feel the government has nothing to do with them, or not be registered for some completely different reason. Sometimes, it takes a little work to convince people that registering is worth their time. This part of the section will discuss how to persuade people that it is worth the effort to register and vote.
 
  • Make it easy for people to register and vote.This is the first thing you will want to do. Here, you are taking away potential barriers to registration and voting. Usually, people want to do the right thing, they just don't want to have to expend a lot of time and energy to do it. So go where people are, so that they can register without disrupting their normal schedule. The recent "Motor Voter" bill we discussed earlier in this section was one step towards doing just that--registering people when they go about their normal lives. Registration drives that take place in very busy areas are another way to do that.
Also, think about other barriers to voting, and consider in advance ways to get around them. Some barriers to registration are:
  • A lack of transportation to the polls
  • Not being fluent in English
  • Not being able to read or write well

How can your organization best deal with these potential barriers?

  • Find out why people aren't registered now. If you want people to change their habits, the first thing you need to do is understand where they are at now--what is causing them to behave as they do. Otherwise, you probably won't get anywhere.

For example, a volunteer might talk earnestly with someone for twenty minutes about the importance of voting, civic responsibility, etc. The listener might nod politely, agree with the volunteer, not register, and move on. He might be completely in agreement about civic responsibility, but knows he won't have reliable transportation to the polls on election day, and be too proud to tell that to the volunteer.

  • The lesson here? When registering voters, the first thing you should do (after finding out they aren't registered) is learn why not.

Some of the most commonly given reasons include:

  • My vote doesn't make a difference
  • I'm too lazy/I've never gotten around to it
  • I don't know how or where to register
  • I don't want to be called for jury duty
  • I'm disgusted with (or just don't care about) politics
  • I don't have transportation to the polling places
  • I don't know what's going on/I don't know enough to make an educated decision
  • I didn't know I could vote
  • I don't pay any attention to politics; it has nothing to do with me
  • My husband takes care of it
Some of these reasons may be easy for people to tell you. Others, such as transportation problems or the inability to read may not be something you will hear from people. You might consider telling people as a matter of course about the help your organization or other groups routinely offer, such as help filling out the registration card or transportation to the polls.
 
Another issue to consider is the fact that some people may not be able to vote, but aren't willing to tell you that. For example, in most states, convicted felons can't vote. However, that may not be something that a person wants you to know about them. Or, you might be trying to convince someone to vote who is an illegal alien. S/he might be very afraid to tell you that s/he isn't a citizen, especially as you may be seen as a representative of the government.
 
Dealing with these issues can be difficult, and will take some sensitivity. Those people doing the registering will need to be sure that people know that they can't register if they're not citizens or if they are convicted felons. It's also important to know when to accept "no" as an answer, and understand you may not get the real reason.
  • Find a way to respond to get around the problem. Most of the time, however, the people you talk to will be able to register. And so when people give you a reason for not voting, you should be able to suggest a way to get around it. For the reasons given above, consider the following responses.
Most of the time, however, the people you talk to will be able to register. And so when people give you a reason for not voting, you should be able to suggest a way to get around it. For the reasons given above, consider the following responses.
 
Reason for not registering to vote Possible response
My vote doesn't make a difference. Your vote can make a huge difference, especially in local elections. There have been many times when an election has been determined by just one or a very few votes.
I'm too lazy/I've never gotten around to it. Now's your chance--it will only take a couple of minutes!
I don't know how or where to register. You can register right here, right now, and we'll help you do it.
I don't want to be called for jury duty. Voter registration listings are not the only ones used to select potential jurors. They're mostly used together with driver's licenses lists and merged to avoid name repetitions. We've never heard of anyone not wanting to drive because it might lead to jury duty!
I'm disgusted with (or just don't care about) politics.
  • If you don't vote, you don't have any right to complain.
  • Then change it! You have the power to take a situation you hate and make it much better.
  • The decisions politicians make affect you directly every day. For example (use a major issue in your area). Wouldn't you like to have some control over that?
I don't have transportation to the polling places. We will be happy to provide transportation for you on election day if you don't have any.
I don't know what's going on/I don't know enough to make an educated decision. We'll help you. We'd be happy to give you summaries of the candidate's views on major issues. If you get the local newspaper, they usually provide a lot of information on this, too.
I didn't know I could vote. If you are a U.S. citizen, over the age of 18, and have not been convicted of a felony (applicable in some states, not all), you definitely can! (And we hope you will, too!)
I don't pay any attention to politics; it has nothing to do with me. The decisions politicians make affect you directly every day. For example (use a major issue in your area). Wouldn't you like to have some control over that?
My husband takes care of it. Your husband's vote is very important, but yours is, too! If you both vote, you've just doubled your household's voice in the government.
 
  • Offer incentives to people who register. These can be very small. For example, you might have magnets, candy, or another small token to give people. But remember--incentives don't need to be a thing. Talking up the benefits of voting might be enough to convince people to fill out a registration card; so can praising them for doing so. The key is to give people something so that they can walk away as registered voters with an immediate sense of satisfaction--that they have done something worthwhile, or gotten something good out of the experience at that moment.
  • Thank the people you talk to. Even if, despite your best efforts, people still refuse to register, thank them for taking the time to listen to you. If someone is considering registering but not sure, leave them with a good taste in their mouth. A simple, "Thanks for your time. I do understand you don't want to register today, but I hope you will reconsider your decision at some point," can be a positive way to end the conversation. If you are doing a registration drive, be sure people know where they can go in the future if they do change their minds.
Even if, despite your best efforts, people still refuse to register, thank them for taking the time to listen to you. If someone is considering registering but not sure, leave them with a good taste in their mouth. A simple, "Thanks for your time. I do understand you don't want to register today, but I hope you will reconsider your decision at some point," can be a positive way to end the conversation. If you are doing a registration drive, be sure people know where they can go in the future if they do change their minds.

Following up: Convincing registered voters to go to the polls

When you have registered people to vote, the battle is half won. However, every election, a tremendously large percentage of people who are registered to vote don't make it to the polls. How can your organization change that, and help convince registered voters to cast their ballots?
 
There are a lot of ways in which your group can do a "Get-Out-The-Vote" (GOTV) campaign. Look at the list below as some possibilities; what other ideas can members of your group come up with?
 
  • Send a postcard the week before the election reminding people to vote and listing polling times and places.
  • Set up a telephone tree several days before the election, reminding people to vote.
  • Organize rides to the polls for people who may need assistance in getting to a polling place. Be sure to publicize the fact that these rides are available. If you send a postcard or do a telephone tree, for example, be sure to include this information.
  • Start a "Kids Voting" campaign (see Example #2)--in many communities, the number of voters goes up significantly when these are implemented. Plus, you are helping to increase awareness and understanding among future voters, too!
  • Hold a mock vote to familiarize people with the process.
  • Conduct issues forums, either with candidates, or with their position papers, using people on both sides of the issues, or representing several different views.
  • Develop public service announcements (PSA's) for local television or radio stations encouraging people to vote. These might feature first-time voters who are excited and energized about the process, or situations where one vote made the difference in an election.

Appendix: What a 501(c)(3) can and can't do

The following was reprinted with permission from Playing by the Rules: Handbook on Voter Participation and Education Work for 501 (c)(3) Organizations. We thank them for allowing the use of this.
 
Special case of voter registration rules and regulations comes into play for 501 (c)(3) charitable organizations that have decided to register voters. That's because the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) places some very strict limitations on lobbying by 501(c)(3) organizations. These organizations are absolutely prohibited from intervening in a political campaign. Because voter registration activities and campaigning can be related, there's a lot of confusion as to exactly what an organization can and can't do. It's a gray area, with a lot of confusion as to what is acceptable and what isn't.
 
The next few pages will offer some basic information on what charitable organizations can do regarding voter registration and informing voters. The lists of what a 501 (c)(3) organization can, can't, and might be able to do are all reprinted here with permission from Playing by the Rules: Handbook on Voter Participation and Education Work for 501(c)(3) Organizations (see Resources to learn where to obtain a copy).
 
However, the information that follows is meant to be a general overview: we strongly suggest you talk with a lawyer about your group's specific situation. This information is not meant to take the place of legal advice.
 
Basic idea: A 501(c)(3) organization can register people and try to convince them to vote. However, they can't tell people who to vote for, or even what party to vote for. They are absolutely prohibited from intervening in any political campaign for or against a candidate. Even if it looks like members of the organization might be suggesting these things indirectly, the group could run into serious legal challenges.
 
What it can do:
  • Conduct nonpartisan voter registration and get-out-the-vote ("GOTV") efforts. (A C3 must follow the special standards of section 4945(f) if it is to be eligible for private foundation funds).
  • Conduct nonpartisan "candidate forums" on issues of concern to its constituency. The forum must be open to all candidates, be run in a balanced way, and include a nonpartisan panel of questioners.
  • Sell mailing lists to candidates, but only on the same terms as such lists are routinely sold to other customers. (The IRS takes the position that a C3's income from the sale or rental of mailing lists is subject to unrelated business income tax. However, the IRS has recently been unsuccessful pressing this claim in court. Several cases addressing this issue are currently in litigation.)
  • Make substantive issue-oriented presentations to platform committees, campaign staffs, candidates, media, and the public.
  • Take advantage of the increased attention that policy issues enjoy during an election period to focus public attention on the C3's issues and agenda.
  • Circulate questionnaires to candidates if they cover a broad range of issues, the questions are unbiased, and the results are distributed only through the C3's routine channels.
  • Conduct training on issues and organizational skills, so long as the training is genuinely nonpartisan.
  • Continue the organization's normal lobbying activity during election periods, and report on its lobbying and substantive activities (including permitted activities listed above) in the usual way to the usual recipients of its publications.
  • Report to its normal constituency, as part of continuing lobbying, on votes of all legislators (not just candidates) on issues of interest to the C3, and indicate whether they support its position.
  • Allow its staff to participate as individuals in political campaigns, on their own time and not as representatives of the organization.

What it can't do:

  • Give endorsements to candidates for office--either explicit or implicit.
  • Make contributions to candidates or parties (including "in-kind" contributions, publicity, staff time, use of facilities or assets.)
  • Set up, fund, or manage a PAC.
  • Evaluate candidate positions (except in certain circumstances where the evaluation pertains to a candidate's position on pending legislation that is the subject of lobbying by the organization).
  • Coordinate activities with a campaign.

What might be okay for a 501(C)(3) organization to do:

Again, the basic idea is that a nonprofit organization can continue doing what it normally does to get its message out, but it cannot support or oppose individual candidates or political parties. The concept itself is pretty simple, in theory. However, in practice, things tend to get complicated. Activities done by your organization in support of an issue may seem to make an impact on a candidate's or political party's chances of being elected.
 
For example, the Republican Party has traditionally opposed abortion. A 501(c)(3) organization working to end abortion would have to be very careful about what activities they did and how they did them, in order that it doesn't look like it is lobbying for certain candidates or a certain party.
 
Unfortunately, there's not a clear answer as to whether or not the activities listed below are legal. Depending on how they are done--and also, on how many of them are done--by an organization, they may or may not be legally acceptable. The fact is that the law here is so ambiguous in most cases that it's difficult to know what anyone will look askance at.
 
And so, the following activities may or may not get your organization in trouble. The authors of Playing by the Rules call these "red flags"--they are things that the IRS watches out for. If an organization does them, it will increase the chance of an IRS investigation into the organization's policies. And, of course, the more "red flags" that are flying, the likelier that investigation becomes.
 
  • Appearance of implied endorsement of candidates (or opposition to candidates).
  • Concentration of activities during peak election periods or in geographical areas of special election interest.
  • Communications with or distribution of materials beyond the C3's normal audience or focused on particular election districts.
  • Coordination of a C3's activities with those organizations (C4s, PACs, campaigns) having explicit political aims.
There's also the issue of public perception--not only whether what you're doing is legal and OK, but whether it looks legal and OK. That is, how will people in the community perceive your organization and the candidates if you go through with these activities? For example, will people believe that you and the candidates are somehow linked--even that you have "dirty politicians" in your pocket? Even if your organization is completely on the up-and-up, be sure you have considered how others will perceive your organization as well.
 
Truth and Consequences:
So what can happen if the IRS looks at your organization's work and decides you have violated the ban on political activity? There are some very stiff consequences that might occur. The IRS could:
  • Revoke your organization's tax-exempt status.
  • Charge your organization a 10% excise tax on each "political expenditure" it has made.
  • Charge the nonprofit's managers (personally) a 2% excise tax on each "political expenditure" they agreed to knowingly and without reasonable cause.
The bottom line here? Be careful. Understand what you are doing and how it might be perceived by the IRS. Talk to legal counsel, and try to keep your nose clean.

In Summary

Voting can be one of the most powerful statements we make as citizens. However, it is a right that many of us not only take for granted, we ignore it entirely. As voter turnout in local elections dips below 20%, apathy has done better than a repressive regime in making sure our lives are governed by a very small minority. By helping to register voters, your organization can help all of us live in a democracy that is truly governed by the people.
 

Online Resources

Federal Election Commission website. Includes federal voter registration form and information on registration for all states.

Project Vote Smart. Registration information for all 50 states and more.

Fair Vote. Links to sites having to do with voting.

Registering to Vote is an informational website provided by the United States government on how to become a registered voter.

National Voter Registration Day is an article about getting others involved in registering to vote on the national voter registration day, September 25.

Vote, and Get Others to Vote provides tips for registering others to vote, as well as how and where to register others.

Print Resources

Andreasen, A. (1995). Marketing social change: Changing behavior to promote health, social development, and the environment. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Center for Community Change. (1996). How and why to influence public policy: An action guide for community organizations [Special issue]. Community Change, 17.

Troyer, T., Lauber, A., Jr., & Cerny, M. (1998). Playing by the rules: Handbook on voter participation and education work for 501(c)(3) organizations. Washington, DC: Independent Sector.

This handbook can be ordered from Independent Sector. They are located at 1200 18th Street NW, Suite 200, Washington, DC 20036. Their publications department can also reached at 888-860-8118, or see their website.

Telephone Resources

Voting Information Center (VIC)
(800) 438-8683
The DoD Voting Information Center, or "VIC," allows callers to hear messages, via an ordinary phone line, from incumbent U.S. Senators and Representatives, Governors, and Secretaries of State. In addition, 60 days prior to an election, messages from candidates for these offices are also available.
Callers have direct access through the VIC to their U.S. Senators and Representative, Governor, Secretary of State, chief election official, and Service or Department of State Voting Action Officers. VIC even has speech recognition technology on the system, so citizens can easily cruise through a series of voice commands to allow citizens to communicate with these individuals and become better informed citizens.

Voter's Research Hotline
1-888-VOTE SMART (1-888-868-3762)
Your own personal researcher can answer your questions instantly over the phone. Open from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. EST, Monday through Friday, the Hotline has information on candidates and elected officials at the following levels:

  • President and Vice President
  • Congress
  • Governors
  • State Legislators

Information Available Includes:

  • Voting Records
  • Campaign Finance Data
  • Performance Evaluations by Special Interest Groups
  • Issue Stances
  • Biographies
  • Contact Information
  • Status of Legislation
  • Help Navigating the Vote Smart Web
  • Voter Registration Information
  • Request Free Publications
  • What District You Live In

Staff will also do customized research for you at no charge.